Systems coaching : An exciting new trend in the coaching world

We are delighted this week to feature another guest blogger, Lorna Shaw. If you would like to blog on a theme related to Challenging Coaching then please get in touch. Here is Lorna’s insightful exploration of the theory and practice of systems coaching:-

Coaching has typically focused on working with individuals and teams to improve performance, change behaviours and beliefs, develop goals or identify a new sense of purpose and direction.  However, we are now seeing a growing trend towards systems coaching, bringing a radically different approach to working with individuals and teams; an approach in which the coach raises awareness around the invisible organisational dynamics at play that can entangle people outside their conscious awareness.

Peter Senge was one of the first to introduce the concept of systems thinking in his seminal book, The Fifth Discipline.  He presents systems thinking as the cornerstone of the learning organisation and argues that failure to understand organisational systems dynamics can lead into cycles of blame and self-defence. In Challenging Coaching, John Blakey and Ian Day introduce the FACTS coaching model, with the S representing systems thinking. Klaus P Horn and Regine Brick suggest, “systemic coaching may emerge as the problem solving method of the future.” (Invisible Dynamics).  John Whittington argues that systemic coaching enables a systemic coach to consider “personal, leadership, team or whole organisation issues in the context of the system in which they belong.” (Systemic Coaching & Constellations: An introduction to the principles, practices and application).

At it’s most fundamental, systems coaching focuses on working with all of the client’s relationship systems, giving everything a place and a voice.  One of the core principles is ‘acknowledging what is’ so that entanglements in the system can be illuminated and released.

systems coaching

Recently, I attended a workshop at the International Coach Federation event, Challenge, Change, Complexity, Chaos… and Coaching where I was able to directly experience systems coaching.  Facilitated by Lori Shook and Adrian Pancucci, the workshop drew onOpen Space Technology with participants encouraged to try on different roles in response to messages from the ‘system’.   I was ‘drawn’ to the role of the ‘leader’.

As the leader in the fictitious organisation, I found myself being criticised by those in the roles of the staff and union representatives for trying to provide leadership and direction to the organisation; challenged that I was failing to listen to staff and being told to “get on with it”, to take action to tackle the crisis.  I experienced a range of emotions – feeling alone, isolated, vulnerable, unappreciated, sad, frustrated – but nevertheless deeply committed and loyal to my organisation and the people.  So clearly, something was causing me to stay with the organisation, despite the chaos I was witnessing and the difficult emotions I was experiencing.

The turning point – and the beginning of resolution – came when I picked up a very clear message from the system that what was lacking was effective communication.  What is particularly important is that I experienced this as a ‘meta’ moment – I could see myself and the relationship dynamics at play. Whilst I believed I had been openly communicating with the staff, it became evident that my approach was very ‘top down’.  There was also a felt belief that it was my responsibility, as the leader, to sort things out.  Adopting a different stance – moving towards the staff and their representatives; inviting their views; respectful listening – all helped to make a difference.

This experience demonstrates that the behaviours of people offer important information about what is really going on at the level of the organisational system.  If leaders are to be effective in leading organisational systems, they need to be open and alert to the dynamics at play, be prepared to challenge their own beliefs and assumptions (e.g. ‘as leader, its my responsibility to resolve things’) and adopt a leadership approach that is in service of the system rather than driven by personal needs and expectations. There remains much more to learn about systems coaching and I hope this blog has whetted your appetite to explore this exciting, new trend in the coaching world.

Lorna Shaw specialises in helping leaders and teams in local government and the public sector to tackle complex challenges and the reality of uncertain futures.  Check out her LinkedIn profile

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